Arsenal for Democracy: The Symington Companies in World War I – Part 1

Rochester has been variously described as “The Flour City,” “The Flower City,” and “The Image City,” even “Baseball City USA,” but no one has ever described it as “The Armaments City.” During the First World War, however, that is what it was.

The Rochester Ordinance District covered all of New York State except New York City, Long Island, and nine counties north of the Bronx. Over 80 companies in this district contributed to the war effort. Kodak, for example, made the first aerial cameras. Bausch + Lomb made optical glass for range finders, gun sights, periscopes and binoculars. Stromberg-Carlson made telephones and radio equipment for the Signal Corps. Most of Gleason Works’ output of machine tools, gears and castings went directly to the American armed forces. And, of course, there was military weaponry, including machine guns, rifles, various other guns and cannons, shells and shrapnel. From April 1917, to the end of calendar year 1918, the Ordinance District was credited with producing 17,850,512 pieces of military equipment. To meet the high demand, nearly one-third of those manufacturing such armaments were women.

symington- shell platn

Symington Factory

Within the city of Rochester itself, there was no larger manufacturer of military ordinance than the T.H. Symington Company. The company was named for its founder and president, Thomas Harrison Symington (14 May 1869-19 September 1931).  Symington was the son of William Stuart Symington (5 January 1839-9 June 1912), a socially prominent citizen of Baltimore.  Stuart, as he was known, was described at his death as a “Confederate of the Old School.” During the Civil War, he served as an aide-de-camp to General George Pickett (of “Pickett’s Charge” fame) from 1862 until the surrender at Appomattox.   After the war, he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, preferring to emigrate to Germany instead. After several years abroad, he returned and achieved success in business. His initial effort was in manufacturing fertilizer. When Ferdinand Latrobe was mayor of Baltimore, Stuart served as Superintendent of Lighting and Inspector of Gas Meters (1889-1895). Later, he worked in insurance and served as Secretary to the Board of the Consolidated Gas Company.

Son Thomas had a technological, rather than a chemical, bent, working for and eventually serving railroads. In 1887, he began his career, working as an apprentice for the Baltimore and Ohio (B and O) Railroad. He served there for four years before enrolling at Lehigh University to study mechanical engineering. Upon graduating, he returned to the B and O until 1901, when he started his own firm, the T. H. Symington Company. Headquartered in Baltimore, the firm made railway supplies such as journal boxes, draft gears, side frames, ball and roller bearings, and dust guards for steam and electric train cars and locomotives. The business was so successful that various manufacturing plants were established outside of Baltimore.

In 1909, one such plant opened in Rochester (at West Avenue and Lincoln Park). Initially supervised by local personnel, beginning in 1914, operations were supervised by Symington himself, as he relocated to Rochester, remaining here until after the First World War. Prior to the American entrance into the war, Symington had a successful foundry business, subcontracting railroad parts for firms that manufactured 12,000 railroad cars for Russia.


Symington Employees at Work (1917-1918)

Once the war got underway, Symington did not want to give up his peace time production, so he created three new subsidiaries to meet the demand for war materiel: Symington Machine Corporation (25 Leighton Street); the Symington-Anderson Corporation (1044 University Avenue); and the Symington Forge Corporation (1244 University Avenue).

We will hear more about these firms in the next post…


Symington Forging Storage
Capacity: 1 Million Shells
At peak, the company could produce 15,000 shells per day

Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Sylvia R. Black and Harriett Julia Naylor, “Rochester and World War I,” Rochester History 5, no. 4 (October 1943).

Edward R. Foreman, “Rochester A World War Ordinance Center,” in World War Service Record of Rochester and Monroe County, New York (Rochester, New York: Published by the City of Rochester, 1930), 3:459-466.

“Maj. W.S. Symington Dead,” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 11 June 1912, p. 9, cols. 1-4.

“Services are Held for T. H. Symington,” The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 September 1931, p. 6, col. 1.

Auke Z. Verbree, A History of the Rochester Industrial Center: A.K.A., T.H. Symington Company & [sic] Symington Gould Company, Rochester, New York 1910-2015 (Rochester, New York: Mountain Air Books, 2015).

Published in: on May 24, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Hello, I Must Be Going: Frederick Douglass’ Arrival and Departure from Rochester (Last of a Series)

“Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay; I came to say I must be going. I’m glad I came, but just the same I must be going, la la!”

Hello, I Must Be Going, [comic song]. Words and Music by Bert Kelmar and Harry Ruby. Sung by Groucho Marx in the film Animal Crackers (1930).

 Local History Rocs is a website devoted to the history of Rochester and its environs, but careful readers of this series of blog posts tracing the career of Frederick Douglass will note that he has yet to arrive here. To date he has lived in Tuckahoe County, Maryland, New York City, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Great Britain and Ireland.

douglass in roc-house

Douglass’ first Rochester home at 297 Alexander Street.

Douglass had been in Rochester several times on his speaking tours, but finally settled here in 1847, partly due to the influence of the Rev. Thomas James, who had been his pastor in New Bedford and had previously been the pastor of the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester (42 Favor Street). Wishing to start his own anti-slavery newspaper (what became The North Star), Douglass, it is commonly held, initially published the paper out of the basement of James’ former church, later moving operations to 25 Buffalo Street (what is today the Talman Building, located at 25 East Main Street).

dougalss in roc-zion

Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Favor Street

Douglass relocated due to Rochester’s reputation as the home of abolitionists, women’s rights activists, and temperance reformers. Among his staunchest friends were Underground Railroad conductors, Isaac and Amy Post, and women’s rights activist, Susan B. Anthony. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Rochester was colorblind.

Shortly after moving into the first of his three homes (this one on Alexander Street), Douglass sent his daughter Rosetta to the nearby Seward Seminary. The principal, Lucilia Tracy, admitted her, but placed her in a class by herself due to disapproval by the school’s board of trustees. After protests from Douglass, Miss Tracy sent the white children home with notes to their parents, seeking their views on accepting Rosetta as a pupil. Due to the opposition of one parent – Horatio Gates Warner, editor of the Rochester Courier newspaper and designer of the Warner Castle on Mt. Hope Avenue – Douglass was forced to withdraw his daughter from the school. He later took part in a campaign to desegregate Rochester schools, a goal that was achieved statewide in 1857.

Douglass continued to reside in Rochester until 1872, his home and his office both functioning as Underground Railroad stations before the Civil War. After the war, much of his time was spent lecturing throughout the nation and lobbying in Washington, D.C. for civil rights. On the evening of June 3, 1872, while Douglass was once more in Washington, a fire broke out in the last home he owned here (on South Avenue, near where Highland Park is now). It was initially posited that the fire had been deliberately set.

douglass in roc-funeral

Frederick Douglass’ Funeral (1895), Central Presbyterian Church (today Hochstein School of Music).

As Douglass  exclaimed shortly after, even in one of the “most liberal of northern cities … that Ku Klux spirit … makes anything owned by a colored man a little less respected and secure than when owned by a white citizen.” Shortly after the fire, he left Rochester for good, making his home in the nation’s capital for the next 23 years. He returned to Rochester in a coffin, having died on 20 February 1895. Today, his mortal remains are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, a pilgrimage site for all those committed to civil rights.

-Christopher Brennan

For More Information:

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 3: 1855-1863, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

“Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping his Tracks in Our City,” [exhibition], Rundel Memorial Building, Rochester Public Library.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

Victoria Sandwick Schmitt, “Rochester’s Frederick Douglass, Part One,” Rochester History 67, no. 3 (Summer 2005).

Victoria Sandwick Schmitt, “Rochester’s Frederick Douglass, Part Two,” Rochester History 67, no. 4 (Fall 2005).

Published in: on May 8, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Different Drum- The Rochester Roots of Steve Gadd

Earlier this week, renowned percussionist Steve Gadd was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. The incomparable and innovative musician has made an indelible mark on the drumming world and has toured the globe providing the backbeat for major artists such as James Taylor, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon, but the roots of his sound can be traced back to his time in Rochester.

Stephen Kendall Gadd was born in Irondequoit, NY on April 9, 1945. Three years later, he started playing the drums.

Though Steve’s parents weren’t musical–his father was a drug salesman for the Rochester Drug Company–his uncle, Eddie Gadd, was a drummer in the U.S. Army.

Eddie gave his young nephew a round piece of wood to play on and taught the toddler how to hold drumsticks.

It wasn’t long before the pair began entertaining the family by playing along to marching band records in the Gadd’s’ living room.

Steve took his show on the road when he was in still in grade school at St Ambrose’s.


An announcement for Gadd’s appearance at The Barn. Democrat & Chronicle, October 31, 1953.

He wowed his peers with performances at The Barn, a youth center in Henrietta, while he and his brother Eddie, a tap dancer, also made regular appearances with the Veterans Park Band during Independence Day celebrations at Ontario Beach Park.


Gadd, age 9, as featured in the Democrat & Chronicle, July 31, 1954.

Years later, Gadd informed the Democrat & Chronicle that his family was instrumental in his early development as a musician.

“They were always behind me, all the way. They never pushed or tried to get me to go any one way. They just let us know, me and my brother, that they were there, that they supported us,” he noted in 1977.

Significantly, the family supported young Stephen’s budding interest in jazz music, taking him to afternoon gigs at the Ridge Crest Inn.

There, Gadd was often afforded the ability to sit mere feet away from masters such as Gene Krupa. Gadd not only learned from these teachers, but also had the opportunity to play with some of them. He sat in with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1956 when he was only 11 years old.


11-year-old Gadd played with Gillespie’s band during their stint at the Ridge Crest Inn in 1956.

That same year, Gadd entered the Mickey Mouse National Talent Round Up contest (sponsored locally by Sibley’s). Gadd was one of the 16 local finalists of the competition, and eventually won, appearing on the Mickey Mouse Club with his trap set on January 4, 1957.


Gadd on the Mickey Mouse Club, 1957. Source:

Gadd further honed his skills at Eastridge High School, playing in the dance band, the drum corps and the wind ensemble.


Gadd (centre) and two fellow members of Eastridge High School’s Dance Band


In 1963, Steve’s senior class voted him “Most Talented” (presumably because “Most Likely to Revolutionize the World of Drumming,” wasn’t a category).

gadd-most talented

Eastridge High School’s most talented teens of 1962-63.


After a two year stint at the Manhattan School of Music, Gadd returned to Rochester’s Eastman School of Music to study under his longtime teacher and mentor, John Beck.

gadd-eastman drums

Gadd at Eastman, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 1968

Gadd sharpened his technical skills during the day and filled in his evenings playing with musicians such as Joe Romano and the Mangione brothers at a variety of local venues including La Galerie and The Lounge.


As advertised in the Democrat & Chronicle, November 13, 1965.

Gadd’s Rochester residency was halted when he was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. Because of his talents as a percussionist, Gadd played drums on the domestic front rather than engaging in battles abroad.

When he returned home, he began forging new musical territory with fellow Eastman alum Tony Levin and their jazz-rock fusion group, L’Image.

gadd-l'image may 23 1975.jpg

Advertisement for L’Image’s appearance at Red Creek (now MacGregor’s). May 23,  1975.

Thanks in part to Tony Levin’s recommendations, Gadd transitioned from club gigs to studio work in the 1970s, leading to his appearances on albums by a host of musical giants ranging from Chick Corea and Charles Mingus to James Brown and Steely Dan.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on April 26, 2018 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Liberators: Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell (Part 3 of a Series)

As we have seen, Frederick Douglass’ speeches about his experiences as a slave were so effective, he became the most well-known black man in the United States. This raised fears that his former master might try to kidnap him and drag him back into slavery. To foreclose that possibility, Douglass left for a speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland.

Douglass left Boston on August 16, 1845 for a 20-month tour, but it was not for pleasure. He was the honored guest of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society. The British Parliament had previously outlawed slavery through gradual emancipation legislation, but at the time of Douglass’ visit, the British economy continued to import cotton and other commodities from the southern slaveholding states to fuel the British textile mills. The Societies were formed to pressure the British government to sponsor anti-slavery legislation for the empire and to abolish the practice worldwide by declaring all slave traders to be pirates.

Even before landing in Britain, Douglass was caught up in debate. Aboard the Cambria, scarcely out of port, he was encouraged by his fellow passengers to share his views as a black man on America’s “peculiar institution.” According to Douglass, this was an almost constant discussion throughout the voyage. As might be expected, passengers from slaveholding states took umbrage at many of his arguments. His opponents even went so far as to threaten violence against him until the captain intervened.

douglass ireland-1879 portrait

Frederick Douglass (circa 1879)

Douglass arrived in Liverpool on August 28th, and two days later he was in Celbridge (County Kildare), Ireland (14 miles west of Dublin). As he later wrote to William Lloyd Garrison:

One of the most pleasing features of my visit thus far has been a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me on account of my color. The change of circumstances in this is particularly striking. I go on stage coaches, omnibuses, steamboats, into the first [class] cabins, and in the first [class] public houses, without seeing the slightest manifestation of that hateful and vulgar feeling against me. I find myself not treated as a color, but as a man [emphases in original].

Among the friends he made on the trip was Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), famous among the Irish worldwide as “The Liberator,” the leader of the movement for Irish independence through political, non-violent means. While in Ireland, Douglass attended meetings of O’Connell’s Repeal Association and shared many of O’Connell’s views on the oppression of the Irish people. Speaking of the Irish, Douglass observed:

Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed, and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondman makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands.

douglass ireland-money

Republic of Ireland 20 Pound Note (1949?)

By the same token, O’Connell shared many of Douglass’ views of American slavery. At one meeting of the Repeal Association during his visit, O’Connell did not know Douglass was present when the latter overheard O’Connell say,

I have been assailed for attacking the American institution, as it is called, negro slavery. I am not ashamed of that attack. I do not shrink from it. I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty all over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant.

Douglass was so enamored of his Irish experience that for a time he considered permanently relocating to the Emerald Isle. But his commitment to the abolitionist cause was so great, he could not resist the call to return to the New World struggle.

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 1, 1841-1846, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 2, 1847-1854, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series Three: Correspondence, Volume 1, 1842-1852, ed. John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Laurence Fenton, Frederick Douglass in Ireland: The Black O’Connell (Wilton, Cork: Collins Press, 2014).

Published in: on March 16, 2018 at 4:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Orator: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 2

After escaping from slavery and settling In New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass worked odd jobs and became active in the local abolitionist community. He attended various anti-slavery meetings and made his public speaking debut in Lynn, Massachusetts in October 1841, recounting his own experience as a slave.

His eloquence as a speaker and his poignant life experiences earned him the respect of fellow abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, who published the most influential anti-slavery newspaper of the day, The Liberator. Garrison’s admiration for the young Douglass was so great that he initially became a mentor to the young man, and Douglass became the leading agent of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. He spoke at churches and in lecture halls throughout New England, New York State, and even Europe. Douglass’ eloquence was so profound that many doubted that he had ever been a slave. To quell these doubts, Douglass wrote the first of his three autobiographies, this one called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which became a best seller.


Engraved Portrait of Frederick Douglass by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1855)

Douglass’ forceful testimony of his own experience in slavery raised fears among his friends that his former master might seek to reclaim him and drag him back into slavery. To ward off the threat, Douglass left for a speaking tour of Great Britain and Ireland (of which experience we will hear more in a future post) in 1845. While he was gone, British and American abolitionists raised funds to pay Douglass’ last master, Thomas Auld, $1,250 to manumit Frederick Douglass, legally releasing him  from the yoke of slavery.

From the beginning of his public speaking career, Douglass’ rhetoric was supremely powerful and moving. His rhetoric is still effective, even more than 170 years later. In his maiden speech at Lynn, Massachusetts, Douglass exposed the pain of enslaved people and the hypocrisy of slave owners:

“… But though they [abolitionists] can give you [slavery’s] history – though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience [emphasis in original]; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt those wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting. Yes, my blood has sprung out as the lash embedded itself in my flesh. And yet, my master has the reputation of being a pious man and a good Christian. He was a class leader in the Methodist church. I have seen this pious class leader cross and tie the hands of one of his young female slaves and lash her on the bare skin and justify the deed by quotation from the Bible.”

The pain of Douglass’ story is even sharper when one realizes the female slave in question was his cousin Henny, who was disabled.


Corinthian Hall (1866), the site of many of Frederick Douglass’ Rochester speeches.
Built in 1849 and razed in 1929, it was located on Corinthian Street, behind the Reynolds Arcade.
It played host to balls, concerts, fairs, plays and lectures.

Although principally known as an anti-slavery speaker, Douglass did not limit himself to that topic. His first speech in Rochester, on March 5, 1848, was on the “Principles of Temperance Reform.” He was a popular and forceful advocate of temperance, women’s rights, and the opposition to capital punishment. There was no public issue of the day on which he did not bring the force of his words and personality to bear, including that of Irish independence.  We will hear more on the latter in our next posting.  [To Be Continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For Further Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 1, 1841-1846, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Published in: on February 14, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Man Without a Birthday: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 1

February is Black History Month, an unofficial holiday honoring the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States. The month-long celebration is rooted in an earlier celebration known as Black History Week, the first of which was established by historian Carter G. Woodson in mid-February 1926. The date chosen was based, in part, on the date of birth of Frederick Douglass. This is ironic since Douglass himself did not know when he was actually born. He said that he adopted February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day, as his birthday because his mother had called him her “little valentine.”


38-year old Frederick Douglass (1856)

For those of us who have had yearly celebrations of our birth and are in contact with our parents, it is hard to realize the anguish that this ambiguity caused Douglass. One can hear the frustration, sarcasm, pain and anger in his third and final autobiography, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, when he discusses slaves’ uncertainty of their background, an uncertainty which he shared:

Genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence in civilized society, sometimes designated as father, was literally unknown to slave law and to slave practice. I never met a slave in that part of the country who could tell me with any certainty how old he was. … Masters allowed no questions concerning their ages to be put to them by slaves. Such questions were regarded by the masters as evidence of an impudent curiosity.

Even well into adulthood– as a man of 59 –Douglass continued to seek information about his background. Travelling to Talbot County, Maryland in 1877, he spoke to one of his former masters. The most Thomas Auld could tell him was that he was born in February 1818. No information was available as to the day or who his father was.

Just as he adopted a date of birth, Douglass adopted a new name as well. Douglass was not his birth name. He was born Frederick Augustus Bailey in Tuckahoe (Talbot County), Maryland, one of six children born to a slave woman, Harriett Bailey, and an unknown white man. Frederick Douglass never learned who his father was, although he assumed it was one of his mother’s owners (she had three). He grew up on the plantation of Col. Edward Lloyd, although Harriett and her children were actually owned by Lloyd’s plantation manager, Aaron Anthony. Separated from her child while Douglass was still an infant, Harriett was relocated (most likely sold) to another master, “Mr. Stewart,” 12 miles from the Lloyds and Anthonys. Douglass only saw her a handful of times thereafter, and always at night, since she had to return to the Stewart property by daybreak.

At the age of 8, Douglass was relocated to Baltimore, where he lived with Anthony’s daughter Lucretia, her husband Thomas Auld, and Auld’s parents, Hugh and Sophia Auld. The following year he returned to Lloyd’s plantation and was permanently separated from his mother and siblings, save for his sister Eliza. Later in 1827, he was sent back to Baltimore to live again with the Auld family, where he lived for six more years. During this time, he learned to read and write.


Frederick Douglass Memorial (1941) at its original location, St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. The statue was later moved to its present location, South Avenue at Highland Park.

Hired out as a laborer while in Baltimore, he made contact with the free black community in that city. In September 1838, using the papers of a free black sailor, he fled to New York City. It was there, among the abolitionist community, that he met and married his first wife, Anna Murray (1813? -August 4, 1882). Shortly thereafter, they moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, he adopted the surname by which he would be known henceforth – Douglass — taking the name from an outlaw in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Lady of the Lake” (1810), but adding an additional S.

[To be continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For More Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Daryl Michael Scott, “The History of Black History Month,” Black Past ( : accessed January 15, 2018). Dr. Scott is Professor of History at Howard University.

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Rochester’s Daredevil: Sam Patch (1799-1829)

Readers of a certain age will remember Evel Knievel (1938-2007), known for various daredevil exploits (including an attempted jump over the Snake River Canyon). More recently, on June 15, 2012, Nik Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and five years later, his wife Erendira dangled above Niagara Falls by her teeth, 300 feet above the water. Daredevils have always been among us, but only one American daredevil became a legend in Rochester and then the nation — Sam Patch.

Sam Patch was born on June 17, 1799 in Reading, Massachusetts. Raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he went to work in a local cotton mill at the age of 8. In his free time, he and his friends amused themselves by jumping into the water below the falls of the Blackstone River, a practice he continued into adulthood. Two decades later, he moved to Paterson, New Jersey, where in September 1827, he leaped the Passaic Falls, upstaging the celebration of an unpopular local businessman, Timothy Crane, who was dedicating a new pre-constructed bridge at the falls. He repeated the stunt on July 4, 1828 and again 15 days later.

Upon leaving Paterson, he began a career as a professional daredevil.  Having been invited by hoteliers in Niagara Falls, on October 7, 1829, he leaped 80 feet over the falls from a base on Goat Island. Ten days later, on October 17, 1829, he repeated the stunt, this time from a platform that raised the leap to 120 feet. On his way home from the Falls, he stopped in Rochester for his final jumps of the year.

sam patch- advert

Advertisement for Sam Patch’s last jump
(Published in Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 12, 1829)

Both jumps were from the High Falls north of downtown. About 6,000 people watched as he jumped on November 6, 1829 from 100 feet above the river, preceded by his pet bear. Due to public interest, he announced that he would repeat the stunt one week later, on Friday November 13, 1829 at 2:00 PM from a stage which would raise the height to 125 feet. He also proclaimed that his pet bear would repeat the stunt one hour later. In front of a crowd of 10,000 people, Patch leaped from his platform, but lost his balance and landed sideways in the water, from which he never surfaced.

sam patch- parsons mill

Saw Mill of Thomas Parsons (1860?). Brown’s Island,
the site of Sam Patch’s leap from the High Falls into the Genesee River

Because his body was not immediately recovered, various legends grew up around Patch. Known as a hard drinker, it was believed by some that Patch had been drunk the day of the jump and that he had died as a result. Some believed that he had hidden behind the sheet of water of the High Falls and remained there until darkness fell, after which he made his escape. In fact, some were so sure he was alive that bets were placed that he would reappear before the start of the new year.

Such speculations came to an end on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1830, when his body was recovered from the Genesee River in Charlotte. His body was unrecognizable after months in the water, but several clues were used to identify the remains, including the black handkerchief he wore around his waist. Today his mortal remains are interred in Charlotte Cemetery, 28 River Street.

Sam Patch’s legend did not end with his death. Throughout the 19th century he was featured in tall tales, stage plays and children’s books. His name even became a polite epithet, “What the Sam Patch!” Today, his name adorns one of the river boats used for cruises on the Genesee.

sam patch - boat

Sam Patch river boat

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

Primary Sources:

“Another Leap! Sam Patch Against the World!” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, October 29, 1829, p. 2, col. 5.

“Higher Yet! Sam’s Last Jump!” [advertisement], Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 12, 1829, p. 2, col. 5.

“Shocking Event! Sam’s Last Jump!” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph,” November 14, 1829, p. 2, col. 2.

“Sam Patch,” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, November 28, 1829, p. 2, col. 2.

“Sam Patch,” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, March 18, 1830, p. 2, col. 1.

Secondary Sources:

“Sam Patch,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 1184-1185.

Paul E. Johnson, Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003).

Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, “The Real Simon Pure Sam Patch,” Rochester History 52, no. 3 (Summer 1991).

Published in: on January 12, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: a New (mini-)Exhibit in Local History!


Yesterday, Mayor Lovely A. Warren and County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo proclaimed 2018 as “The Year of Frederick Douglass.” In honour of the bicentennial of Douglass’ birth, the City of Rochester and various local organizations and institutions will be offering a number of programs throughout the year to celebrate the life and legacy of the famed abolitionist, statesman and orator.

A few months ago, we in the Local History division began pondering how we might participate in this momentous anniversary. One of the ideas we came up with was to create a small exhibit on Douglass in conjunction with our current exhibit on Rochester’s bicentennials and centennials.

Seeking an original theme for the exhibit, we decided to focus on Frederick Douglass’ Rochester, highlighting the spaces and places that informed his life in the Flower City.

douglass exhibit- pamphlet

Douglass once wrote that he would always feel more at home in Rochester than anywhere else in the country, and his legacy is undoubtedly felt throughout the city in which resided for a quarter of a century.

His name adorns local institutions and sites such as the Frederick Douglass Community Library and Frederick Douglass Street, while artistic renderings of him span the city from the Wall Therapy mural at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Avenue D, to the Frederick Douglass Monument in the Highland Park Bowl.

These posthumous tributes to the civil rights activist coexist with the sites and spaces that shaped Douglass’ own life here.

Frederick Douglass resided in Rochester with his wife Anna and five children from 1847 to 1872. He moved here to establish his anti-slavery newspaper the North Star, which he published in the Talman Building on East Main Street.

His skills as an orator took him to renowned venues such as Corinthian Hall, where he delivered perhaps his most famous speech, ‘What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” in 1852.

His work continued at home, where he wrote articles, coordinated Underground Railroad activities and sheltered escaped slaves. Only one of the three houses Douglass owned in Rochester (located on Hamilton Street) still stands today.

These are just some of the sites that patrons can learn about in the Local History Division’s new mini-exhibit: Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping his Tracks in Our City.

As an added bonus, we have created a compendium exhibit pamphlet so that visitors can take themselves on a self-guided tour of the stomping grounds of one of our most celebrated citizens.

Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping His Tracks in Our City will run from January 11 -August 31, 2018 on the 2nd floor of the Rundel Library.


-Emily Morry


Published in: on January 5, 2018 at 5:43 pm  Comments (2)  

City of Refuge: The Beginning of Rochester’s Jewish Community

As this blog post is being written, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is just ending. Today, the Jewish community in Rochester comprises over 22,000 people, but the earliest immigrants to Rochester were Protestant Yankees. What do we know of the origins of Jewish life in Rochester?

The first known Jewish immigrant to pass through the area was Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), who came to Rochester in 1825 on his way to Grand Island, seeking to establish a community called Ararat, “a city of refuge for the Jews.”

The first permanent Jewish settler in Rochester is disputed. Some claim the first was Myer (or Meier) Greentree (1818-1890), who arrived in America in 1840, settling in Rochester between 1841 and 1843. Others claim the distinction for Joseph Katz (1814-1901), who was said to be here by 1834 (even though the Rochester city directories support Greentree’s claim over Katz’s).

In rapid succession, several other families settled here by the mid-1840s, including those of  brothers Joseph Wile (1812-1892) and Gabriel Wile (1820-1904), Asher Beir (1818-1893), Elias Ettenheimer (1819-1908), Sigmund Rosenberg (1825-1901), and Hirsh Britenstool (1814?-1896). Occupationally they were clothiers, laying the groundwork for Rochester’s role in the fashion industry in later decades. This small population of Jews would grow exponentially, to the point that by 1870, Jews comprised the fourth largest minority group in the city.

Halacha (Jewish law) specifies that ten adult men are necessary to form a Minyan (the quorum necessary for corporate worship). By 1848, that number had been exceeded. On 9 October 1848, a group of twelve men gathered to form a congregation, today known as B’rith Kodesh (“Holy Covenant”).


Temple B’rith Kodesh, Gibbs Street and Grove Place (ca. 1910)
Built at the site in 1894, the synagogue burned down in 1909 and was
rebuilt and rededicated the following year.

The congregation currently occupies a modern-style building on Elmwood Avenue in Brighton, but initially B’rith Kodesh did not have a permanent home. The members met in the home of Henry Levi, on North Clinton Avenue at Cumberland Street, later moving to the third floor of Stanwix Hall at 2 Front Street. In 1852, they leased an old Baptist chapel on St. Paul Street (near Andrews Street) for their purposes. Four years later, in 1856, they were financially secure enough to purchase, remodel, and move into the St. Paul Street structure. The building would remain their home for nearly 40 years, until the spring of 1894, when they moved into a newly erected building on Gibbs Street at Grove Place. The congregation relocated to the Brighton temple in 1962.


Max Landsberg, Senior Rabbi,
B’rith Kodesh, 1871-1915

How were the Jews of Rochester accepted in their new home? Anti-Semitism was not entirely unknown. This was demonstrated in a February 1860 civil case. A prominent attorney argued on behalf of the plaintiff that whereas the defendants were all Jews, and all the witnesses for the defense were Jews, the jury should be reminded that the tenets of the Jewish faith required them to “to get all they can from Gentiles, in any manner.” Needless to say, this lie raised the ire of the Jewish community. Even so, Jews generally were welcomed into Rochester’s business and political communities, such that the city became the “city of refuge for the Jews” that Noah had envisioned decades before.

-Christopher Brennan


For more information:

Philip S. Bernstein, “Judaism and the Jews in Rochester,” in Centennial History of Rochester, New York, ed. Edward R. Foreman (Rochester, New York : John P.Smith Co., 1934), 4:277-279.

Peter Eisenstadt, Affirming the Covenant: A History of Temple B’rith Kodesh, Rochester, New York, 1848-1998 (Syracuse, New York : Syracuse University Press, 1999).

“The Israelites Defended from Aspersion,” Union and Advertiser, February 15, 1860, p. 2, col. 2

Mary Posman, “Rochester, Refugees and the Jewish Community, 1930 to 1950,” Rochester History 74, no. 2 (Fall 2012).

Stuart E. Rosenberg, The Jewish Community in Rochester, 1843-1925 (New York : Columbia University Press, 1954).



Published in: on December 28, 2017 at 3:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Time of the Season: Sibley’s Toyland

toyland-bears on bikes

When Rochesterians hear the word “Toyland,” they almost invariably think of Sibley’s.

Sibley’s wasn’t the first American store to create such a toy department, nor was it the only one in Rochester to have a floor by that name, but the erstwhile store’s elaborate toy section nevertheless became seemingly synonymous with the Christmas season for generations of area residents.

Department store pioneers such as Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and Siegel-Cooper in Chicago were among the first to cater to children’s Christmas whims by adding a toy department in the late 19th-century.

Taking a page from their books, Sibley, Lindsay and Curr converted its basement into a seasonal Toyland in 1898.

An advertisement for the new section boasted: “…here, descriptive powers fail to do justice; every Toy that’s made of wood, every Toy that’s made of iron, Games, Drums and musical Toys of every nature, all here for our little friends’ Christmas pleasure.”

The bounty of (mostly European-made) toys flooding the basement’s shelves weren’t the only thing attracting turn-of-the-century children, however. Sibley’s set up intricate mechanical displays featuring colorful fictional characters, each year attempting to outdo the previous year’s effort.

And of course, like other department stores, Sibley’s made sure to have a resident Santa Claus on site to carefully consider the wish lists of their kiddie customers.


Toyland’s entrance ca. 1940.

Toyland’s popularity-and no doubt its profitability-prompted Sibley’s to relocate the department to an expanded section on the fourth floor in the 1920s.

The onset of the Great Depression at decade’s end seemingly did not dampen spirits at the new Toyland. Rochester retailers were quick to note that such recessions scared consumers away from big purchases, but bore less impact on less expensive products, like toys.

A 1930 Democrat and Chronicle article on Toyland noted that Sibley’s’ Santa Claus “…is just as ruddy, his smile as sincere, his whiskers as spurious as ever. He doesn’t know a thing about depressions. And neither, for the matter of that, do the kids. Which is very much as it should be.”

Rather than fall short during the hard times of the 1930s, Sibley’s doubled down on its seasonal section. In 1935, the company followed the trend initiated by Gimbels’ in Philadelphia (and later popularized by Macy’s in New York City), and launched its own annual holiday parade to mark the grand opening of Toyland each year.

Prior to the parade, the balloons spent the night in Cobb’s Hill Park where they were inflated before making their debut along a route spanning from the corner of East Avenue and Culver Road to Main and Saint Paul.

By 1938, the parade counted 30 papier-mache figures and 20 giant balloons including a bug “as long as a trolley car” and a polka dot cow “so big it could use a bale of hay for a stick of chewing gum and then swallow it whole,” according to a D&C reporter.

In 1940, when the crowd for the popular parade was expected to reach 50,000 people, every single police officer in the city was put on special duty.

But while the barrage of balloons helped boost Sibley’s sales, its Toyland (like those across America) took a something of a hit during the war years.

Due to bans on the use of steel, rubber and other materials deemed vital to the war effort, the store experienced shortages of certain types of toys such as wagons and trucks.

Such toys that did enter the wartime market often showcased alternative materials. For instance, since the use of steel was limited to 7% of the gross weight of a toy, toy vehicle manufacturers almost exclusively used wood in their products, saving their steel allotment for wheel axles.

toyland- workshop

A North Pole scene at Sibley’s ca. 1940.

The post-war era witnessed changes of a different kind at Sibley’s.

As more Rochester residents relocated to the suburbs, retailers such as Sibley’s followed suit. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sibley’s added locations in Henrietta and Greece. Each in turn developed its own Toyland, and each featured its own Magic Corridor, the animated diorama marking the path to Santa Claus.

While these suburban forays offered customers added choice and convenience, they ultimately helped influence the demise of the downtown department store.

Santa seekers would make their last pilgrimages to the original Sibley’s Toyland in the late 1980s. The mainstay Main Street store closed its doors for good in 1990.

toyland- tree

-Emily Morry

Published in: on December 19, 2017 at 10:00 am  Comments (2)